“The threat seems to come not so much from the unseen enemy as from the landscape itself, made mystically hostile to human occupation; it picks up the psychological tensions of the men on patrol […] and returns them as landslides, explosions, and impassable mountain ranges.”
– Dave Kehr, Chicago Reader
Top Tier, 1957
“Battalion doesn’t exist. Regiment doesn’t exist. Command HQ doesn’t exist. The U.S.A. doesn’t exist… We’re the only ones left to fight this war.”
Excluding those that took place in the distant past, Anthony Mann directed only three war films, and only two (this and The Heroes of Telemark) were concerned with ground combat. Like its title, Men in War‘s agenda is on the simple side. It’s about men. In war. The screenplay is built around the basic “attrition narrative,” in which one character after another is withdrawn from play until only one or two remain. This isn’t the film where PFC McClusky goes back home to Flatbush Avenue, where there’s a girl waiting for him; the platoon isn’t saddled with a war orphan or an exotic parrot that’s been taught to make recite remarks; nobody reminisces about “back home” or the last skirmish, or anything else. The view of war is pictorially cramped and thematically narrow, as if viewed from the wrong end of a telescope.
Yet the film, spare as minimalist theater, is rich in effect and immerses the viewer deeply into an environment of constant danger and anticipation of continued danger. This film sweats and smells like fear. There are no comfort zones, not even in nature. Especially not in nature. Death inhabits every natural space: a thicket of bushes and trees, a long hill, the ground beneath the soldiers’ feet. In fact, at times, the film frame itself almost seems to have been set against them.
Quite a ways into the picture, a cast-off sergeant (Aldo Ray) and a mute, shell-shocked Army colonel (played with expressive silence by Robert Keith – the effete criminal Julian in Don Siegel’s The Lineup, and the patriarch in Gordon Douglas’s Young at Heart) appear and threaten to gum up the works for everybody. Ray comes off as irreverent and callous, and he’s looking to protect two interests – his own neck, and the colonel’s, to whom he’s formed an unbreakable, familial attachment. Already his character is a tough nut to crack – his selfish attitude is far from indivisble, and he’s given no signs of “being yellow,” a trait we might otherwise expect to be uncovered later. And what begins as a battle of wits between the sergeant and Lieutenant Benson (Robert Ryan, never harder-bitten) is soon overtaken by the dominant structuring force of the men’s lives, their environment, and the film’s visual scheme: explosions, flying debris, gunfire, and the occasional garroting. It begins with thirteen men, in the middle of a hundred square miles of enemy territory, and no more than two get out of the movie alive.
One of Mann’s most neglected great works, Men in War is tough to find on home video; there’s an out-of-print DVD from 2000, but it isn’t very good. If a 35mm print should come within a two-hour drive of your present location, it’s worth the trip.